As the war in Iraq grinds on and the Iraqi government reels from crisis to crisis, ordinary Iraqis are looking for certainty. That has sparked a resurgence of interest in self-proclaimed psychics, fortune tellers and healers.
Even though fortune-telling is forbidden by Islam, there are soothsayers in almost every neighborhood in Baghdad. Some of their customers hope to receive supernatural guidance in finding lost or dead relatives. Others are looking for charms, such as rings or stones, to ward off danger and cure diseases.
As long as life in Iraq remains desperately uncertain, the fortune-telling business will continue to boom.
At Madame Warda's cluttered house in the Karrada district, she read the dregs of a coffee cup for a neighbor, a woman who wants to know about a relative who's been kidnapped.
The coffee cup holds comparatively good news. "Look dear, he's in jail. He's been arrested by the government," Warda says. "He'll be back, you'll hear from him soon."
Layla al-Nassiri, who visits a psychic named Madame Janet, says that Iraqi life is so uncertain that people will violate their deeply held religious convictions in hopes of getting answers.
"Because we can't understand what is happening around us," Nassiri said, "everything defies explanation."
One fairly safe prediction in Iraq is to say that a person's life is shadowed by danger — this is, after all, a country where it's cause for comment when someone dies a natural death.
And people in danger sometimes resort to charms.
At his family's antique shop in al-Wathit Square, Ammar Hassan sells rings and stones that are reputed to ward off danger and cure diseases.
"I've heard there are stones that can protect a man against gunshots. People have told me they tried these stones on animals, such as chickens and sheep," Hassan said. The animals were shot at, but escaped unhurt. They swear they saw it happen with their own eyes."
Asked how much someone might pay for a stone that wards off bullets, Hassan said, "If they need it desperately, they'd pay alot."